Heber Valley event is a 'best-kept secret' in Western art

Published: Saturday, Oct. 26 2013 1:00 p.m. MDT

Cowboy poet and host, Waddie Mitchell at performs at Heber Citys Cowboy Poetry Gathering and Buckaroo Fair in 2009.

Tom Smart, Deseret News Archives

“We still feel some days like we’re the best-kept secret around,” said Ted Caldwell with a laugh.

Caldwell is the director of the Heber Valley Western Music and Cowboy Poetry Gathering, which runs from Oct. 31 to Nov. 3. The gathering is in its 19th year.

Caldwell is proud of the gathering, stating that it probably has less funding than other cowboy events in the nation, but its quality is just as good thanks to the way people rally around the tradition.

“We have one paid person in our whole organization. … We just have literally hundreds of people in our community that come in and support our gathering.”

To say the event offers a variety of artistic treats would be an understatement. From a performance-filled train ride on the Heber Valley Railroad and open-microphone performances to a Buckaroo Ball and Buckaroo Fair, attendees will see music, dancing and expert craftsmanship in jewelry, pottery, leatherwork and more. Both local and visiting artists will be featured.

Caldwell pointed out that even the gathering’s poster design — an oil painting by artist Chris Owen — was a fine work of art that sold for $35,000.

“These are artists, they are professionals,” he said. “Most of them — this is their livelihood.”

We must not forget, of course, the art that started it all: cowboy poetry.

Jeff Carson, a Heber City native and cowboy poet, actually got started in the genre when he first attended the gathering 14 years ago.

“I actually hated poetry all my life. I’d look at those poems you had to read in school, and I just didn’t like it,” he said. But cowboy poetry was something else.

“Man, I just fell in love with it,” he said. “I thought, ‘This isn’t poetry. This is just storytelling that rhymes.’”

Carson, according to Caldwell, is a “true cowboy” who really knows the lifestyle. Carson says the poetry “just came natural.” He gets his inspiration from just about anything and has written pieces inspired by politics, church and rides in the mountains with his mules — especially “wreck stories,” he said.

“Somebody’s pain is always funny when you write about it.”

Carson called cowboy poetry a very approachable genre, saying it is both humorous and thought-provoking.

Though the gathering is deeply rooted in the cowboy poetry tradition, Caldwell is particularly excited for this year because of the expansion of some other venues outside the event's main home at Wasatch High School. Also exciting is the arrival of Lynn Anderson, multiple award-winning country vocalist. This will be her first year with the gathering.

The gathering will also welcome back crowd favorites like Joey + Rory and famed cowboy poet Waddie Mitchell.

New to the scene are The Sweetback Sisters, a country band with New York roots that has been around for about seven years.

Emily Miller, one of the group’s two singers, said, “As soon as our agent said she had talked to a cowboy poetry festival, we were extremely excited and told her to do anything she could to get us there.”

Miller said she and the other “sister,” Zara Bode, have been poring over the website and are excited to come and meet the talented group at the Heber gathering. The band has never performed in Utah, but officials of the gathering are very excited about it coming, Caldwell said. Among other performances, the group will provide a long dance set for the Buckaroo Ball.

Miller described The Sweetback Sisters as a “renegade country band with retro roots” and said they like to make their performances “rollicking fun.”

The musicians in the band bring a variety of experience with classical training and jazz training — and they hail from five different states.

The background of the newcomers alone illustrates the variety of people and talents at the event. It’ll be a gathering of experienced artists with a great deal of Western pride.

“I hear way too often people saying that they like any music but country music,” Miller said. “There’s so much good country music out there. I want to show everybody what country music can be.”

And, above all, Carson emphasized that the entire event is sure to entertain the whole family.

“It’s just a great crowd to be around. I mean, there’s nothing better than a cowboy hat and cowboy boots walking around, is there?”

If you go…

What: Heber Valley Western Music and Cowboy Poetry Gathering

Where: Wasatch High School, 930 S. 500 East, Heber City (Also at Wasatch County Event Center and Midway Town Hall)

When: Oct. 31-Nov. 3

How much: $10 for general admission (which includes Buckaroo Fair, cowboy entertainment, Western art and open-microphone stages) and $10-$69 for extra performances and events

Phone: Heber Valley Visitor Center, 435-654-3666

Web: hebervalleycowboypoetry.com

Email: hbowler@deseretnews.com

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